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Mike Caputo: UMWA is working for Patriot Coal members

The May 29 decision by a federal bankruptcy judge in St. Louis to allow Patriot Coal to scrap its collective bargaining agreements and eliminate retiree health care is as wrong as it is cruel.

It's wrong, first, because it's unnecessary. In a week-long court hearing, the United Mine Workers of America clearly indicated ways in which Patriot could achieve major cost savings without jeopardizing the lives and livelihood of some 23,000 active and retired miners and their families.

We have made these same proposals to Patriot.

Yet time after time, management has turned down our proposals, even though the company's own data shows that the UMWA's proposals would make the company profitable and save jobs while causing a less painful path to survival.

The decision was also wrong because by criticizing the terms of the present health and retirement plans, Judge Kathy Surratt-States failed to acknowledge that these plans were negotiated not with Patriot, but by Peabody Energy and Arch Coal.

They are the ones who made these promises, not Patriot. They are the companies who used corporate shell games to set up companies into which they dumped their long-term obligations without sufficient assets and resources to meet them.

UMWA President Cecil Roberts is still talking with Patriot to see if there is a path forward that improves upon what the judge in St. Louis ordered.

It's also important for everyone to understand that for now, Patriot has not implemented the judge's order, meaning no one has lost their health care and the terms and conditions of work remain the same at Patriot's UMWA-represented mines.

The truth is that this struggle could end tomorrow if only Peabody and Arch would do the right thing and own up to the promises they solemnly made to our members many years ago.

But I'm not holding my breath.

The UMWA has filed a suit in federal court in Charleston alleging that they violated the Employee Retirement Income Security Act by illegally dumping their contractual obligations.

That, along with continued and increased public condemnation of Peabody and Arch's moral bankruptcy, is the path to eventual victory in our fight for fairness and justice.

Our retirees took less in wages while jeopardizing their health and safety for decades to make these companies profitable - in return for a promise that they would receive health care when they need it most. So have thousands of active miners working for Patriot today.

For their sakes, we cannot and we will not allow this wholesale betrayal to stand.

Caputo, D-Marion, is majority whip in the House of Delegates. A coal miner, he is District 31 International Vice President of the United Mine Workers of America.

 


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